Archive for Friday, June 20, 2008

Thrill of the dig

Archaeology can be tedious, but finds bring moments of excitement

Volunteers work to uncover an archaeology dig in Republic County.

Volunteers work to uncover an archaeology dig in Republic County.

June 20, 2008

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Unearthing Kansas History
Pawnee Indian Museum panorama showing site of KAA dig near Courtland, Ks. Note: this is just for Chris Metz

More than four decades ago, the burnt remains of Pawnee Indian earth lodges were uncovered. In June archaeologists - both amateur and professional - returned to north central Kansas and the site of a historic Pawnee Indian village. More

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— For almost two weeks, Alex Norton dug through the dark earth of Republic County and came up with almost nothing.

As others were finding beads and shards of pottery at the site of an earth lodge in what was once a Pawnee Indian village, the Kansas University junior mostly came across rocks and charcoal.

And then her trowel struck a piece of metal.

It looked to be the hammer of a gun. Toothpicks were put in place, a gun specialist was called over to the trench, a crowd gathered, photos were taken and high fives were exchanged.

This, indeed, was a find.

For those who still have the big screen notion that archaeology digs come with treasure-hunting, fist-fighting, grave-robbing adventure, all you have to do is observe the amount of excitement generated from the discovery of a tiny gun hammer to know that while the dig comes with thrills, it is rarely of the Indiana Jones variety.

In fact, with much of the time spent bent over troweling in trenches, archaeology seems to hold all the excitement of gardening.

Of course there is the beating sun, mosquitoes and occasional tornado warning to contend with. And then there are those moments - like the morning of the second-to-last-day as part of a gun is unearthed - when archaeological gold is struck.

The hook for the volunteers, professors and students who gathered in Republic County earlier this month are those instances when an artifact, however small, is plucked out among the dirt giving a new window into the lives of people who stood on the same spot generations ago.

"That is why I love archaeology because you get to dig up history," Norton said. "It is so exciting to find something and when you finally do, you are happy. You are as happy as a lark."

A rare treasure

Each summer, the Kansas State Historical Society and the Kansas Anthropological Association come together to hold a two-week training program. Archaeologists - both amateur and professional - journey from around the state and country. This year the group traveled to north central Kansas to excavate the floor of a burnt earth lodge.

Students and professors with KU's anthropology field school and tribal members from the Pawnee Nation of Oklahoma were among the participants.

Archaeologists returned to a site that had been dug up more than 40 years ago. The earth lodge - which sits near the Nebraska border - is part of a village that is one of the best preserved Pawnee Indian sites on the Central Plains.

Between the 1770s and 1830s, the village was believed to have held 40 to 50 earth lodges and a population of close to 2,000. The Pawnee used the fortified village as a resting place in between hunts. Staying for the planting season and returning for the harvest, they took advantage of the rich soil to grow corn, pumpkin and squash.

The village represents a significant tribe during a transitional period in American Indian history. The Pawnee Indians were the dominant force in the Central Plains. And at the turn of the 19th century, the tribe was interacting with arriving Europeans, but still living the kind of lifestyle they wanted to live, said Richard Gould, who is the site administrator for the Pawnee Indian Museum.

In 1949, KU anthropologist Carlyle Smith excavated two lodges in the village. And, in the 1960s, state archaeologist Tom Witty uncovered six lodges and some burials. A museum - the state's first historic site - was built around the floor of one of the excavated earth lodges.

Today, archaeologists hope a renewed look at the site will help answer some lingering questions. Paramount among them is pinpointing when exactly the village was occupied and when and why the Pawnee left.

"We have new techniques, new questions, new ways of studying the archaeological record and that is what we are applying here," Kansas State University Research Associate Professor Donna Roper said. "We are doing it very thoughtfully and very carefully."

Hooked on archaeology

After just a few minutes on the dig site, it becomes clear that there is much more to the process than actually digging. There is the sifting through dirt for finds and tedious job of cataloging artifacts in the nearby air-conditioned junior high school.

This year, all that work was done by a crew of about 160.

Many are volunteers with the Kansas Anthropological Society. The members spend a few days to the full two weeks on the dig, some camping out in the junior high school's gym floor or in the grassy school yard just outside. Ages range for teenagers to retirees. Among the employed, there are some who sacrifice their two weeks of vacation for the program.

Lawrence resident Allen Wechert notched up his six dig this summer. After his wife and daughter attended one program and came away with the find of a bison skull, Wechert said he decided to give it a go. Now he's hooked.

"I think it is the mystery," Wechert said. "You are troweling away and you hear a clink and you think that is going to be the find of the day."

As for Norton, who had her find of the day, the appeal is how history is uncovered one small piece at a time.

"The great thing about archaeology," she said, "is that you can kind of let your imagination run wild."

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